Major decorative ceramics centres in the IX-XIII centuries Central Asia were Samarqand, Bukhara, Chach, Fergana, and Khorezm. As one of the most significant types of applied art, ceramics became widespread with the development of trade and craft in urban areas were ceramics manufacturing concentrated and technological innovations and new design techniques emerged.
In the IX-XII centuries Fergana Valley experienced rapid economic development, which was reflected in the production of ceramic pottery centred mainly in the cities such as Ahsikent, Osh, Uzgen, Quva and others. Yellow and blue glaze patterns on white engobe show affinity to stylistic trends of Aafrasiab ceramics imported here from Sogdiana. Jars were covered with a thin light-yellow glaze and decorated with painted or carved ornament. There were four kinds of platters (lagan) different in shape and size. On the inside, in the centre, there were five- or seven-point stars, while the edges were decorated with vegetable or geometric designs in the shape of repeated alternations of circles and rhombi. On the face, platters were covered with a simple radial pattern of angles pointing to the centre and connected by lines. Greenish-yellow and golden glaze dominate.
Fergana decorative ceramics of the Temurid period reflects the general trend that existed in the XIV-XVII centuries in Central Asia – a trend that was characterized by the erasing of local traditions and the originality of artistic development under the influences of Islam as well as the evolution and propagation of the “Temurid ceramic style”. Processes which occurred in glazed ceramics manufacturing of that time were of fundamental importance for the formation of ornamental style and pattern structure system in the ceramics of all subsequent periods.
In the XVIII-XIX centuries pottery craft is renovated, with greater localization in art processes associated with the formation of Bukhara, Khiva and Kokand khanates on the territory of Central Asian “Mesopotamia”. Fergana and Khorezm ceramics schools were characterized by coldish colour range of deep-blue, white and light-blue shades linked by the commonality of technique, namely the use of potash or ishkor glaze that gave specific deep- and light-blue colouring to the under-glaze painting. In all other respects, namely the item shape or content and interpretation of ornaments, ceramics of these two schools were significantly different. Fergana school featured large variety of shapes and decorative motifs. Unlike traditional non-glazed water vessels, murgoba, made by women in mountain areas of Tajikistan, the masters of the Fergana school produced murgoba completely covered with glaze.
In the late XIX and early XX centuries the leading role unquestionably belonged to the Fergana School of glazed ceramics from Andijan, Gurumsaray and Namangan. Northern regions of Tajikistan were also part of the Fergana school, the main centre of which was Rishtan. Rishtan ceramics stood out with its high technological and artistic qualities, and local masters developed their own painting style of exquisite designs. They often introduced specific images into the ornamentation – from choydysh, jugs and musical instruments to guns and knives. In the late XIX and early XX centuries Rishtan chinni type tableware was famous across Central Asia. Massive imports of Chinese porcelain played a role in the development of this local tradition. The Chinese influence appeared to be most prominent in the regions of Tajikistan neighbouring Rishtan, especially in the village of Chorku. XX century Rishtan craftsmen also produced whistles – toys known as churchurak or hushpulak. Those who engaged in this craft were predominantly women.
One of the most famous centres of the Ferghana blue ceramics is Gurumsaray, famed for items with monumental compositions depicting jars and choydysh. Gurumsaray items are characterized by the so-called mirror pattern, when the ornament can be views both as background and design. Ornamental content of Gurumsaray ceramics was distinct in its greater conservatism and greater adherence and commitment to the original traditions.
The city of Namangan was also among the places where glazed ceramics production concentrated. At the end of XIX and the first third of XX centuries Namangan masters extensively employed both ishkor and lead glazes. To decorate the items, they used patterns such as chetan gul mehrobi, pargori naqsh, islimi ailana, olma gul, toumor, behi gul, dondona (dented pattern) davra islimi, oba, janjira, etc.
Another significant centre of the Fergana school was Andijan where masters seldom used the ishkor glaze, so their products, despite ornamental similarity to those of Gurumsaray and Rishtan, featured yellow colouring due to the use of lead glaze for roasting. In early XX century in Shahrihan, a small town in Andijan Province, they produced large shallow platters for festivities and rituals
In the late 1920s in many ceramic production centres masters organized cooperatives, courses, and schools. Potters manufactured traditional ware and used brush painting, engraving and die to ornament it. Ceramics produced in the leading schools still retained its local artistic specificity. In 1930s, the overall trends commanded a search for new artistic solutions. The most vivid manifestation of these innovations was the use of portraits and subject compositions. In 1950s and 1960s ceramics masters also paid tribute to subject/thematic and portrait images, gravitating toward the language of easel painting; this, by and large, disrupted the image structure of items that still had traditional shapes.
Among the most dynamically developing pottery centres of today is Rishtan – a rich source of knowledge about specifics of the current situation in traditional ceramics in terms of technology and making, as well as decoration and specificities of style. Throughout 1970s – 2000s (in the 1970s the production of ishkor glaze was restored) one can observe the following trend in the development of Rishtan ceramics: paying tribute to traditional heritage, Rishtan masters rather boldly and decisively introduce changes into shapes and ornamentation. They strive for innovation, which, however, does not always yield positive results and often lead to eclecticism. Painstaking, detailed reproduction of traditional shapes and ornaments, and the unfailing adherence to tradition give way to an increasingly strong manifestation of individual creative initiative and greater range of employed techniques and ornamental designs.
Presently, Rishtan masters use ishkor glaze on the basis of traditional and technological methods, as well as imported factory-made pigments, such as copper oxide, cobalt, and manganese oxide
Local artistic features of Rishtan ceramics are largely determined by the ornamentation, which is the most saturated and rich, comprising a full range of ornamental patterns used in Uzbekistan ceramics: geometric and vegetable patterns, signs and symbols, subject images, zoomorphic and anthropomorphic motifs. At the same time, there in an ongoing process of further “decorativization” of both primary (the ancient and medieval periods) and secondary (object images of late XIX and early XX cc.) archetypes. Besides, ceramics start featuring the third generation archetypes introduced in the XX century (in 1930s – 1950s and 1990s). Thus, since 1990s some artists began to put calligraphic inscriptions in Arabic ligature, pictures of minarets, mosques and madrasahs, portraits, etc. on the platters.
Changes in the social environment where traditional crafts exist have naturally led to certain transformations that influenced Rishtan ceramics. The process whereby traditional arts and crafts moved from utilitarian domain to the souvenir industry, which began in the middle of the XX century, continued into the current age. Many traditional shapes are gone while lagan has retained its lead position due to its decorative and functional value. At the same time masters experiment and search for new ornamental solutions. In general, the process of adaptation of Rishtan ceramics to market economy causes quite a few concerns. Looking for markets, many masters adjust to suit lowbrow tastes of tourists, which often leads to the loss of fundamental traditions and specificities of style. Situation with training available to ceramics masters is not easy. The former “usto-shogird” system has now become too simplified and distorted. Hence a situation when market corrupts the traditional system of training high-skilled masters, which results in lowering the overall quality standards of ceramics produced in the famous centre. Leading master-craftsmen who produce high quality items seek to sell them at a price that matches quality, while their apprentices offer their products for little money. Mass production has inundated the art shops, galleries, market-places and tourist centres of Bukhara, Samarqand, Khorezm, Tashkent… Even in Rishtan it is sometimes difficult to find pottery made in the ancestral Rishtan traditions. The ornamentation of the serial mock items is too shallow, dry and graphic, and only vaguely, in some details, resembles the juicy and picturesque decoration on the items wrought by the finest masters of the region. Ceramic artists of younger generation, guided by the market and customer preferences, seek to set up faster manufacturing process, which means lower quality products. Yet some of them are aware of the need to follow the original traditions. This situation creates many complications for the art of Rishtan masters. Therefore, at the present stage quite relevant problem is the conservation of original authentic ornamentation and thus the purity of art and imagery of Rishtan ceramics. There is a need to address the issue of price regulation and copyright in the domain of traditional folk art. Despite these art-related and administrative challenges, there obvious has been some progress over the years of independence. Social status of the traditional ceramics master has improved substantially, and Rishtan ceramics is selling well under its own trade mark. Enthusiasm for mastering the profession has grown in all population groups in the region, and the interest in the traditions of ceramics manufacturing has markedly increased in Rishtan itself and beyond. Many masters visited Japan and other countries and began to organize personal exhibitions abroad. Thanks to the enthusiasm of the masters and support from local authorities Rishtan has seen more active promotion of the art of leading ceramists; a number of museums and art studios of craftsmen from the renowned center have been created. These include the house-museum of the famous ceramist Ibrahim Kamilov, a home gallery established by Rustam Usmanov (1997), and Alisher Nazirov’s workshop (2005). All this does inspire optimism and confidence that despite some developmental art-related and administrative challenges facing Rishtan ceramics the Central Asia’s largest centre of traditional pottery will develop in the right direction.